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Sonia Gandhi's country


Recently Sonia Gandhi, Italian by birth, Indian by marriage and citizenship, made history. First, she led the Indian Congress Party to a surprise victory in the recent elections, defeating the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and proving every pollster to be wrong. Then, widely expected to become the Prime Minister of India, she turned down the post, saying that she had never coveted it and that in refusing it, she was listening to her ‘inner voice’. In both respects, she took the wind out of the sails of both her supporters and opponents. And she put to rest, at least for the time being, a furious debate on issues of nationality and citizenship. Here’s how it went:

Can an Italian woman who long ago married an Indian man and then took Indian citizenship, become the leader of a country as large and complex as India? Should she be counted as Indian or foreign? What is it that defines nationality and citizenship? Is it your passport? The colour of your skin? The allegiances you hold? The food you eat? The clothes you wear?

The BJP had accused Sonia of being a foreigner and therefore not fit to lead the country and, as the election campaign gathered momentum, the accusations went from bad to worse. It was said that, even though she took Indian citizenship 21 years ago, Sonia did not see herself as Indian because: (a) she continued to hold the deed (or at least part share) to her ancestral home in Italy – wasn’t that a terrible thing to do for someone who saw herself as Indian? (b) her favourite dish was pasta and her children spoke fluent Italian – weren’t these signs that she did not see herself as Indian?

So strong was the protest that BJP politicians threatened to walk out of Parliament should Sonia become Prime Minister, others said they would not attend her swearing-in ceremony as a form of protest, while others still threatened to chop off their hair and wear widow’s weeds. These are the more extreme reactions and perhaps should be dismissed as such. After all, hundreds of millions of voters in India voted for her; clearly, for them, nationality has nothing to do with birth.

The odd thing is that India has always prided itself on being an open and tolerant society. For years it has opened itself up to the ‘foreigner’ and has welcomed and assimilated all kinds of ideas and change. Indian history is replete with foreigners who have made this country their home. Among the examples are Mother Teresa (no Indian held her to account for being a ‘foreigner’) and Annie Besant, who was, like Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Congress Party, and who well and truly dirtied her hands in the murky world of Indian politics.

Then, if we flip the picture and look at it differently, there are other realities. If we haven’t hesitated to claim foreigners as our own, we also haven’t quibbled much about ‘Indians’ who become foreigners. VS Naipaul is still seen as Indian, as is Amartya Sen – or are they exceptions because they won the Nobel Prize?

Indians are in every single country in the world today. They’re making their fortunes, fighting for their rights, and they want to be seen as citizens of the country they have made their home. There’s any number of middle class Indians whose life dream it is to acquire a Green Card and become American. How then can we castigate anyone who makes our country their home?

Sonia Gandhi has time and again been told she is of ‘foreign origin’. Does that mean it is someone’s origin that defines her nationality? Many countries have laws that allow people to take citizenship after a certain period of living there, while others allow you to buy citizenship. Is belonging defined by what you feel, the allegiances you make, or by where you were born?

There’s another anomaly here. India is a deeply patriarchal society. When a woman marries in India, she loses her own identity and acquires that of her husband. She has little or no choice in the matter. She does not even get to keep her own name. So, by that criterion, Sonia Gandhi’s foreign origin would no longer be an issue. By marrying Rajiv Gandhi she gave up claim to any previously held identity (indeed the BJP would be the first to say this). How does it suddenly become possible for the woman to remain an autonomous subject when all her life she has been (supposedly) secondary to the man?

‘Imagine the example of openness, tolerance and courage India would have set to the world if we had put aside the issue of “origin”, nationality, foreignness – not to mention gender – and focused instead on competence and capability’

These are questions the protestors will not ask, or answer. They know their arguments about nationality and citizenship have no substance – for these are insubstantial things, difficult to pin down, more difficult to concretize. The sooner we decide to be open and tolerant about them, the better.

Sonia Gandhi chose not to become the Prime Minister of India so, for her opponents, the immediate danger has passed. But imagine the example of openness, tolerance and courage India would have set to the world if we had put aside the issue of ‘origin’, nationality, foreignness – not to mention gender – and focused instead on competence and capability. That would have been an act worthy of the 21st century!

Urvashi Butalia is an Indian writer and publisher. She lives in New Delhi.

New Internationalist issue 369 magazine cover This article is from the July 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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